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Pan Am 103 Bombing Verdict: University of Glasgow Legal Expert Discusses Sentencing

Aired January 31, 2001 - 8:38 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: We want to get more reaction to the sentencing of a Libyan man, Ali Al-Megrahi, who was found guilty today and sentenced to life in prison for the downing of Pan Am Flight 103.

Joining me right now is Claire Connelly. She is a legal expert with the University of Glasgow.

Good day, Claire.

CLAIRE CONNELLY, UNIVERSITY OF GLASGOW: Hello.

LIN: Claire, your reaction to the sentencing.

CONNELLY: Well, certainly the sentence that has been passed, as you know, is a mandatory life sentence. When someone has been convicted of the crime of murder, in Scots law is a mandatory life sentence. The judge here has told the court this afternoon and the first accused, Al-Megrahi, that he will have to serve at least 20 years before he can make an application for parole. That means a 20 year period would lapse before he could even apply to be released from prison, and such an application isn't guaranteed to result in release.

LIN: Why was there not a death penalty in this case?

CONNELLY: We don't have the death penalty in Scots law.

LIN: Oh, I see. All right, so he has to absolutely serve 20 years before he can even apply for parole?

CONNELLY: Exactly. And if an application was successful at that point, at a later point when he reapplied he would be released on life license. And the judge has recommended that he be deported to Libya at that point.

LIN: But in the meantime...

CONNELLY: But only after serving the sentence.

LIN: Gotcha. So in the meantime, though, he can still appeal the verdict, is that right, and the sentence?

CONNELLY: That's right. There's not an automatic right of appeal under Scots law. Within the next two weeks, if he chooses to appeal, notice of intention to appeal would have to be lodged. Then papers supporting an application to appeal would be submitted to the court and a judgment decide whether there are any grounds for an appeal to be heard. But a right of an appeal is not automatic, and there have been no announcements as yet by the defense that an appeal will be made.

LIN: Claire, what sort of case, though, if there is an appeal, what sort of case would his attorney have to present in order for him to either have a new trial or to have the sentencing changed?

CONNELLY: Well, certainly because the conviction has been on the crime of murder, there can be no appeal against sentence because the sentence is mandatory life. So the appeal could only be against conviction. And really, basically, the decision of the judges today that they decided in the verdict, it's clear that they thought beyond reasonable doubt that the accused was guilty. Any appeal would have to overturn that decision. That's a fairly substantial job.

LIN: And at the same time, Khalifa Fhimah, the other man found not guilty, already en route back to Libya, is he now beyond the reach of the law? He is completely absolved of this case?

CONNELLY: Well, yes, in terms of -- we have a principle in Scots law called rejudicata. It's equivalent to double jeopardy. And after a person has been tried for a particular crime and the court has reached a verdict in that trial, he cannot be tried again for the same offense.

LIN: All right, thank you very much.

CONNELLY: However, it doesn't mean that civil actions.

LIN: It doesn't mean what, Claire? I'm sorry?

CONNELLY: It doesn't mean that a civil action could not be raised against a certain accused, as you know from your experience in your own country following the O.J. Simpson trial. The same thing has happened in Scots law. But even where people have been acquitted in respect of charges of murder, families a bit after raised a civil action for damages.

LIN: Yes.

CONNELLY: And those actions have, on occasion, been successful.

LIN: Yes, that's right. And, in fact, several American families have, in fact, filed civil actions against both of these men, as well as the Libyan government. What do you think their chances of recouping any damages?

CONNELLY: That's right. Well, certainly, as you know, in a criminal trial, the test is a test of beyond reasonable doubt. In a civil case, the test is only on the balance of probability as to whether an event took place and damages being paid. So the conviction today of the first accused indicates that certainly there may be a strong case for damages. Whether that would extend to the second accused is less clear at this point.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, once again, Claire Connelly, for joining us, University of Glasgow, legal expert.

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